Ring Around the Sprawler

The metro area's startling growth rate has alarmed Coloradans the past few years, as new subdivisions and mini-marts crowd valleys and hillsides from Longmont to Castle Rock. But a little-noticed effort by local cities to constrain urban sprawl--by drawing a line around Denver and daring developers to step across it--may not be far off.

Pie-in-the-sky proposals to limit growth in the Denver area have been around since former governor Dick Lamm led a successful drive to send the 1976 Olympics packing. But there is one significant difference this time around: If Denver doesn't change its helter-skelter development patterns, the federal government is threatening to cut off funds for new roads, an idea that has terrified officials in fast-growing suburbs.

More than twenty metro leaders, including the mayors of Aurora, Longmont and Littleton, and commissioners from all six metro counties have been meeting for the last several months to try to find a way to channel growth in metro Denver over the next quarter-century. If present trends continue, the metro area, which now covers 500 square miles, will grow to over 1,000 square miles by the year 2020 as an estimated 750,000 new residents join the 2.1 million people already here. The goal of the new government working group, dubbed Metro Vision 2020, is to find a way to limit that growth to 700 square miles, in the process preserving open space and encouraging higher-density development along major transit corridors.

"Elected officials have to have the political will to buy into this," says Longmont mayor and Metro Vision chairwoman Leona Stoecker. "We need to have a rational plan that protects our quality of life."

Stoecker, who says her group hopes to have a plan in place by the end of the year, acknowledges that local governments fear losing control of the planning process if they surrender the veto power they now have over development in favor of a communal blueprint. But she says officials also realize that new federal rules make metro cooperation essential.

Those rules went into effect two years ago when the U.S. Congress passed a new transportation law, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). Under the provisions of ISTEA, metro areas that violate air-quality standards, as Denver has, must make sure that new highway construction doesn't worsen air quality. To prove that Denver has a handle on smog-generating sprawl, the metro area needs to show the feds that it is taking action to discourage the massive amounts of new driving that usually accompany scattershot development. The best way to do that, according to Stoecker, is to foster higher-density housing and commercial projects near highways and transit lines while discouraging spread-out subdivisions.

The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), an umbrella group composed of every city and county in the area, is coordinating the planning effort. And because DRCOG controls the dispersal of federal highway funds, suburban governments have an incentive to cooperate.

"It's much better to use the carrot than the stick," Stoecker says. "In order to meet conformity on air pollution, we have to have some vision. I prefer to get ahead of mandates. It's the right thing to do."

To restrict growth to 700 square miles, however, local cities and counties will have to sign off on a growth boundary around the metro area, an idea that frightens some advocates of development. But interestingly, Denver's homebuilders aren't opposing the notion of making some areas off-limits to new subdivisions.

"If we can build to meet the housing demand within the growth boundary, we probably don't have that much of a problem with it," says Steve Wilson, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver. Wilson says homebuilders in Portland, Oregon, a city that's had a growth boundary for almost twenty years, have supported the idea there.

What frustrates local developers, says Wilson, is the crazy quilt of government regulations that now exists in the metro area. "We have some communities with arbitrary growth limits," he says, and because many cities fear being overrun by tract homes or apartment complexes, "there's continuous pressure for less and less density." Wilson adds that homebuilders often propose politically correct high-density projects and then find themselves in a battle with neighborhood groups that want to require large yards for every new home.

Colorado doesn't have a strong record in urban planning--witness the leapfrogging subdivisions of recent years--and some observers question how effective the Metro Vision 2020 effort will be. "We could start a betting pool; that could be pretty entertaining," says Christine Ford, boardmember of the Urban Design Forum, a local group that advocates better community planning. "But I'm taking a break from total cynicism on this. The federal mandates are a stick we haven't had before. The congestion and air-quality problems are not going away. They'll get worse unless measures are taken."

John Parr, a senior fellow at the University of Denver's Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues, agrees that the federal government's threat to cut off highway funds will make a difference. "We need to figure out how to promote development that reduces our dependence on the car," says Parr, who has been involved in Colorado planning issues for more than two decades. "All the counties and municipalities are seeing how their comprehensive plans can fit into an urban-growth boundary."

What's still not clear, Parr adds, is how--and whether--such a boundary can be enforced. In places like Portland, the state legislature made the boundary the law, but Colorado's more conservative lawmakers are unlikely to give teeth to such a measure. For that reason, says Parr, Denver-area cities will probably have to police a borderline themselves, agreeing on a voluntary system of economic incentives to keep the boundary in force.

Getting dozens of cities and six counties to agree to put aside their competition for new development long enough to restrict growth won't be easy. But one goal of the current planning effort does seem within reach: the creation of an open-space buffer around metro Denver. Not only would such a buffer establish a rough boundary for growth, it would theoretically make residents more willing to accept higher-density housing. And because hundreds of millions of dollars in state lottery funds will be available in coming years for open-space purchases, Denver has a unique opportunity to create a regional open-space system that could be one of the largest in the country.

DRCOG has already received a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, the state agency that distributes lottery funds, to begin planning a network of regional parks. And it's an idea likely to prove popular with residents who see Denver fast becoming the Los Angeles of the plains.

Stoecker, for instance, says Longmont residents badly want an open-space buffer around their town to preserve its identity and prevent the town from becoming just another faceless suburb. "The only way a community can continue to be freestanding is with some kind of buffer," she says. "We have a very compact community, and we'd like to keep it that way.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers